PHT’s 2018-19 Central Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Atlantic Division Preview
Metropolitan Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

It’s been widely regarded as the toughest (and arguably the most talented) division in the NHL, and the Central Division certainly lived up to that moniker last season, sporting the top two teams league-wide in the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, finishing with 117 and 114 points, respectively. The division doesn’t look like it will take a step back this season, either.

It’s one of the most interesting arms races in the NHL and there are no signs of that slowing down.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: 

Better or Worse: This one depends on how the Corey Crawford situation plays out. It appears he’s getting close to returning, but it takes one puck or one bump in the crease to send Chicago’s season into a spiral again. Cam Ward is a serviceable backup, if not still a fringe starter in the NHL, so Chicago has that going for them at the moment.

The ‘Hawks are only getting older. See: Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, etc. Jonathan Toews’ production is slipping. Patrick Kane is likely still going to put in work, but I’m not certain it will be enough.

Strengths: Goaltending, if Crawford plays. His numbers last season were otherworldly until injuries derailed his bid for the Vezina. Ward, as mentioned above, should be a solid backup that could allow Crawford to rest a little more throughout the season but Crawford needs to play for the Blackhawks to have a shot.

Weaknesses: Defense. Keith and Seabrook at the team’s top defensive pairing and aren’t getting younger and are playing more minutes than what would be considered optimal. Both are overworked and it showed last year. Adding Brandon Manning over the summer offers some depth on the back end, but it’s simply not what it used to be in Chicago.

2017-18 Highlight: One name: Scott Foster.

MVP Candidate: Patrick Kane. He’s still one of the best playing the game currently, a point-per-game player that can put the Blackhawks on his back on any given night.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Central Division is simply too good to allow mediocre teams into the playoffs.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: 

Better or Worse: Was it a fluke? A team that was dismal a year prior went on to make the playoffs with their last possible chance on the final day of the regular season and then looked pretty darn good against the Nashville Predators at times in the first round.

They added depth in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole and made things interesting in the crease after acquiring Philipp Grubauer via trade. Can they build off last season, or will they experience the bumps young teams do as they grow together? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered.

Strengths: Special teams were a tremendous asset to the Avalanche last season. They finished eighth on the power play at 21.9 percent and fourth on the penalty kill at 83.3 percent. Those are some solid numbers from a young team like the Avs.

Weaknesses: The expectation that Nathan MacKinnon (and his line) needs to do it all. We saw it last year, and the Avalanche made the playoffs (barely) because of it. But that can’t be the expectation going forward. They’re still a team rebuilding, so the expectation is that will be cured with time.

2017-18 Highlight: Clinching a playoff berth in Game 82. (Don’t miss Landeskog getting mauled by his teammates after the clinching empty-netter.)

MVP Candidate: Nathan MacKinnon. Some say he got robbed of the Hart last year. He put the team on his back on the way to a playoff spot.

Playoffs or Lottery: Unfortunately, a couple teams have gotten better around them and that’s pushed the Avalanche out of the playoff spot and into the lottery.

DALLAS STARS:

Better or Worse: It has to get better, right? A new coaching style courtesy of Jim Montgomery might just do wonders for this team. It’s not like the talent isn’t there. They have one of the best top lines in all of hockey. Simply, if the Stars can score more, they have the rest of the tools to be a playoff team. A top 10 defense and solid goaltending are in place. Score. More. Goals.

Strengths: Defense. This seems to be a theme in this division. Dallas, despite their inability to score outside of their top line, was consistent on the backend, allowing the sixth fewest goals against in the league. Part of that is John Klingberg and Co. The other part is Ben Bishop. They had a decent penalty kill and allowed the fourth fewest number of shots per game.

Weaknesses: The Stars simply need more goals. It was their burden last season. They simply couldn’t find the back of the next enough to win hockey games. The teams’ top power-play unit needs to be better than their 19th ranking last season.

2017-18 Highlight: Here’s Jordie Benn hitting brother Jamie while their parents were in the stands to watch their sons play. Classic.

MVP Candidate: Tyler Seguin. No contract worries to think about. Just a sheet of ice and a swath of opportunities for goals.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. I simply don’t believe the Stars were as bad as their record showed last season. The switch of Hitchcock to Montgomery is a big one. And, to harp on the goals again, the Stars are a few more of those away from being a playoff team given their defense and goaltending.

MINNESOTA WILD:

Better or Worse: Better because Ryan Suter will be healthy. Better because they will start the season with Zach Parise.

Suter was ruled out for the rest of the season on March 31 and could only watch as the Winnipeg Jets decimated the Wild in the playoffs. Suter’s return is big for the team that added some depth in the offseason. The Wild dealt with a litany of injuries last season to top players such as Parise (who missed many games due to offseason back surgery), Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. While Eric Staal may not score 42 goals again, a healthy Wild team is a dangerous Wild team.

Strengths: Devan Dubnyk has been rock solid in goal, and couple that with the Wild’s stingy defense, and there’s no reason to think he won’t have another great year again. The Wild are a good defensive team that can also score a pile of goals.

Weaknesses: The Wild are their own worst enemy. Minnesota is a good team that just can’t figure it out in the postseason. They finished 11th in goals for last season but only scored nine in five playoff games against the Jets. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times before it falls off. Calling on Bruce Boudreau to figure that out — it’s his job.

2017-18 Highlight: Eric Staal was sensational last season. Here’s a five-point night that included a hat trick for good measure.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd74AGo1nR0

MVP Candidate: Matt Dumba. A workhorse defenseman who anchors the power play and can score. He achieved career highs in goals with 14 and points with 34 last season and could take another step toward that elite plateau this year.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They showed even without star players for various lengths last season, they had the depth to find a way in the back door. The Wild are a great team that shouldn’t have an issue making the playoffs.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS:

Better or Worse: They added a veteran presence on the backend in Dan Hamuis and have Eeli Tolvanen to look forward to upfront. They’re basically the same team that was in the Cup Final two years ago and have all that experience to lean on once again this season. They’re better through experience and a couple of added pieces that could finally fit this puzzle together.

Strengths: There’s still no better defensive core in hockey, right? Josi. Subban. Ellis. Ekholm – their top four is the envy of the NHL. They added third-pairing depth in veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, too. It heads into the regular season as the best back end in hockey (with San Jose hot on their heels).

Weaknesses: The Predators are one of those teams with few flaws. Adept at scoring, solid at defense and proficient at goaltending. Where’s the weakness? It could come from Pekka Rinne. I know, the Vezina winner from this past season? He’s set to turn 36 and struggled in the playoffs when the Predators needed him the most. Juuse Saros should help reduce the workload. That’s good, because if the Predators are going to win in their current window, they need Rinne at his very best at the most important time of the year.

2017-18 Highlight: The Knob Save (Josh Morrissey caught some mean whiplash on the play).

Bonus round: Viktor Arvidsson’s pre-game marriage proposal win.

MVP Candidate: Filip Forsberg. Became a point-per-game player last season even after missing time due to injury, and set a career high in assists.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, a no-brainer. They’re one of two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in the Central Divison.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

Better or Worse: The Blues were in upgrade mode all summer, adding the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon, while welcoming back David Perron after his year in Vegas.

The Blues were on the bubble last season, and may have made the playoffs if they sort of give up around the trade deadline and deal Paul Stastny away. The Blues added scoring in the offseason, which will help their bottom-third showing in goals-for, and should help equate to more wins.

Strengths: Undeniably, it’s St. Louis’ defense. On a team with a starting goaltender that had a .906 save percentage, the Blue still gave the sixth-fewest number of goals last season. That’s no small feat, given the struggles Allen achieved last season.

Weaknesses: It has to be in goal. Jake Allen is the ultimate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde goaltender. There are days where he appears elite and days where he belongs in the American Hockey League. If Allen can be steady, the Blues are going to be a playoff team. If not, welcome to the lottery.

2017-18 Highlight: Brayden Schenn‘s remarkable season.

MVP Candidate: Vladimir Tarasenko. It’s time for him to hit 40 goals again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. Despite the question of Allen, the Blues just look like a solid team in front of him, one that can potentially make up for any shortcomings their goaltending may have.

WINNIPEG JETS:

Better or Worse:  Better by virtue of the team getting one year old and coming into this season armed with the knowledge of what it takes to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then what it takes to make a deep run, as the Jets did last season.

And it should be noted that their Western Conference Final elimination should serve in the growth department. Learning to lose and learning from losing can be just as important. They lost Paul Stastny, but were a good team prior to Stasny’s arrival at the trade deadline last season.

Strengths: Winnipeg’s offense was one of the best in the NHL last season and there’s no reason that should change, barring catastrophic injuries to the likes of Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Laine could easily top 50 this season, and Wheeler and Scheifele are point-per-game players.

Winnipeg’s power play is lethal and they found secondary scoring in abundance last season. Their projected fourth line (or third, depending on how you look at it) was one of the top 10 lines in the league in terms of puck possession, goals-for percentage and expected goals-for percentage.

Weaknesses: The Jets have few faults, which is what you’d expect from a team that won 52 games last season. That said, questions marks on defense have dominated training camp. The team is trying Tyler Myers out on the left side with Dustin Byfuglien and early impressions aren’t favorable. The loss of Toby Enstrom, who the Jets couldn’t afford to re-sign, has created a hole that needs filling.

2017-18 Highlight: Winning Game 7 in emphatic fashion in the second round against the Nashville Predators to book a trip to the Western Conference Final.

MVP Candidate: Mark Scheifele. A 16-game absence robbed him from a solid run at the Hart last season. Wheeler will be in the mix, too, but Scheifele seems poised for a season that could creep close to the century mark in terms of points.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and perhaps an improvement on their trip to the Western Final last year. They’re a Stanley Cup contender.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck